The Batammaliba Home’s Association with Family and Tradition
The Batammaliba are a modern civilization that resides in north east Togo in Africa. Having settled between the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the Batammaliba people have expanded to be composed of 3 distinct districts; western, southern, and eastern Batammaliba (Blier 6). The term Batammaliba, which describes both the civilization and the people, can be translated to “those who are the real architects of earth” (Peek 24). Evident by their name, they have a focus on tradition of the construction and occupation of their homes. While there are many practical and utilitarian features of the Batammaliba homes, I wish to focus more on the parts that tie to religious practices and ceremonial and day to day traditions. Many of these traditions and features the Batammaliba and their homes explain the idea that the homes are treated as if they are a member of the family, one that is connected to nature, its inhabitants, and changes along with changes in the family.
The homes of the Batammaliba were constructed of clay with wood supports. Specific individuals called otammali build the home, along with the aid of the family the home is for. Even prior to construction, certain rituals must take place to determine if a location is good for construction. Whether or not a site is good can affect the family’s fortune as they reside there. Good fortune can promote fertility, longevity, and happy living. It is preferred to build a new home on top of the foundations of a previous home because it is already known that that site was able to hold a family and bring them life. Used sites also have the best soil due to continuous fertilization by previous occupants (Blier 23). When there is no previous site available, the owners must find a location that displays signs of a good site. This could include a variety of natural occurrences, such as the presents of an ant hill, or the use of rituals, like putting a stick in the ground and noting any changes in its orientation over a certain period of time (Blier 24). These rituals and marks of a good site demonstrate how the Batammaliba believe in a living force that inhabits the homes. The family did not simply choose the site and start building their home, the site chose the family through its symbols present in nature, such as the ant hill. Only when a sight is identified as good for the family does construction of the home begin.
Another example of the home’s connection to the family is apparent during construction. Rather than the architect, who is one of the most important people in the community, being the only person working on construction of the house or being aided by members of the village whose job it is, the family that will soon occupy the home are the ones that help build the house (Peek 24). While the family members are not the ones actually laying down the clay to form the rings that eventually stack to form the walls of the home, they do collect titati (construction materials consisting of special clays and plants) and help the architect construct the new home.
Another correlation between the home and its life force becomes evident on the completion of the house. The “termination” ceremony occurs when the last level of the sleeping room is completed. The home, which was viewed as alive during construction is then “killed” for the inhabitants to live in it. Upon the home’s death, its soul is encapsulated in a tabote, a special serving stone that is used by the family. This ceremony can be interpreted in different ways however. The tabote is what “all the houses breathe by” (Batcamu Bunanka) and represents the life-force inside the house. However, the ceremony also eludes to the physical death of the owners of the home (Blier 34). This further connect the home to the family it holds and makes it appear as if the home is a member of the family itself.
The homes all have a general circular floor plan. Two main granary towers sit to the left and right of the entrance way. There exist sleeping rooms, an oval entrance room, and support towers toward the back. Much of the construction serves to facilitate various traditions and religious practices for the Batammaliba. Batammaliba has a strong distinction between men and women. Each have very distinct roles in the community and have different rituals associated with them. One example is a man’s staff, which he must earn by other members of the community. He accumulates these staffs to display outside the home. Another is evident in the homes themselves. The two granaries are separate. One is for the man and one is for the women. The man’s is always on the right of the entrance and the women’s always on the left (Blier 17).
Aside from structure that represent the separation of men and women in society and gender roles, features of the home are associated directly to the anatomies of people. The entrance way contains the most prominent and obvious features. The opening for the door is viewed as the mouth of the home. Smalls holes cut out above the doorway are eyes. These eyes hold the importance of allowing the house to see the setting sun in the west. All homes face west to allow this as it connects to the Batammaliba’s religious beliefs and Kuiye, the god of the setting sun (Peek 24). Between the eyes is a seam that leads to a house horn that is viewed as the navel of the home. The house horns, which as small clay projections that jut out from the top of the entrance way and create expressions that go all the way towards the ground, has multiple representations. In terms of the anatomy of the house they are the testicles and again show the male role and prominence in the home since they appear in the front and are very visible. The house horns are also representative of a marriage in the household. The granaries are rather appropriately the stomach of the home as they hold the grain and food that feeds the family. Other anatomical structures are represented, such as the chest, joints, arms, legs, knees, and anus (Blier 122).
Other parts of the home have ties to the family outside of human anatomy. One such feature is the ancestral beam. This is one of the wooden beams in the home that offers structural support, but instead of being taken from a tree, it is taken from the home of the family from which the new inhabitants once lives. This allows for the inhabitants to still have connection to their parents and old family as they reside in their new home and raise his/her new family (Blier 18). Soul mounds are another construction that is representative of the family in the home. These clay mounds represent each member of the family that live in the home. Clay is added to the mounds as the children grow. The mounds are very accurately symbolic of each individual, even as to being destroyed upon their death (Blier 131).
Much of the physical construction of the home is rooted in tradition and religious ceremony. Even though the Batammaliba, being a modern civilization, have avoided industrialism, modernization, and the spread of other culture into their own, my curiosity continues to return to how reliant the Batammaliba are on tradition for the design of their homes. If the Batammaliba were to eventually adapt to a different religious view, while their homes reflect that change. Will the homes continue to face west for consistency even if, hypothetically, the Batammaliba no longer has religious ties to Kuiye and the setting sun? Another such example that could affect home design is changes in gender roles. The Batammaliba hold old views of male superiority and these views are reflect in the homes. Could, if eventually women are seen as equals in the community, change the location of the granaries? Would the homes even have two granaries if a shift toward equality like that were to happen? The Batammaliba civilization has been relatively unchanged since in 18th century roots, but how susceptible to change are the people and could that change be exposed in the design of their homes?
Batammaliba House clearly displaying house horns, granaries, and soul mounds.
Photo Source: University of Pittsburg
Floor plan of Batammaliba House with labeled structures
Photo Source: Suzanne Blier
Blier, Suzanne Preston. The Anatomy of Architecture: Ontology and Metaphor in Batammaliba Architectural Expression. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987. Print.
Peek, Philp M., and Kwesi Yankah. African Folklore An Encyclopedia. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Google Books. Routledge, 2004. Web. 17 Nov. 2015. <https://books.google.com/books?id=SmmUAgAAQBAJ&pg=PA24&lpg=PA24&dq=the+batammaliba&source=bl&ots=8HwjWaue4S&sig=oOdNlw6BZuOimI-nax73vjMpRq0&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CEsQ6AEwCWoVChMIu5278ueYyQIVRuomCh3ltAjg#v=onepage&q=the%20batammaliba&f=false>.